One of the things that excites me most when traveling through Africa, is having an opportunity to watch traditional African dance. I am enthralled by the expressive nature of the dance, the uninhibited passion, colour and movement, which for an artist of any genre, provides heaps of inspiration.
So we are still on our travels through Limpopo and Petra, having been the cultural officer of Limpopo for many years, is the perfect person to travel with, as she knows so many good dance groups and is always able to introduce me to dance that I have never seen before. This province has a rich cultural heritage, so is a particularly good area to find amazing dancers with beautiful vibrant costume. On my last visit in 2009 I saw great examples of Tsonga dance, images of which are still clearly etched in my mind.
This trip, Petra has arranged for us to visit a dance group in the village of Mamaila, home of kgošhi (chief) Rhapahlelo. She does not know much about them, but was very impressed with their costumes when she saw them at a cultural festival some months ago, and has decided that this would be a good time to find out more. The leader of the group, Sarah Machete, is here to meet us and leads us to the local school where her group are all assembled.
We are introduced to the group of women, seated in colourful array upon the school chairs and are told that we are now in the company of the Kopanang Fighters! They are VaBirwa wa Raphahlelo, a Northern Sotho group, closely related to the Lobedu of the rain queen Modjadji fame.
I smile at the name they have given themselves, but looking at this group of fiercely proud Northern Sotho women, it certainly seems to fit. I sense that I am amongst empowered African women, who have identified a dream and are following it. The ladies are eager to share their story and Sarah recalls how it all began.
To begin with just a few women in the village got together to practice their traditional dance. They had no costumes and really just danced for recreation. Sarah, who is a teacher, used to see the group on her way to and from school. They encouraged her to join them, but Sarah says that she resisted, thinking “no, I am a teacher, I cannot do this dancing; this is for the illiterate women.” She also believed that she was too old and that her legs were too sore. However, she was persuaded, joined the group and found that the exercise was the best thing for her. Then they heard about competitions that were being held around the country and were encouraged to take part. Their first attempt failed, due to them not having proper shoes, so they went to a local businessman and performed in front of his shop to draw customers and he in turn bought takkies for the whole group. They took part in several more competitions, and though they didn’t win any prizes, they looked at those who were winning and made the necessary adjustments to their performance and dress.
The group began to grow as more women wanted to be a part of this positive and empowering initiative. Their costumes evolved from one show to the next and soon became the colourful uniform that it is to today. Despite the earlier disappointments, the women never gave up and after a particularly successful event at the Meropa Casino in Polokwane, were soon winning all the prizes. Since then they have traveled far and wide and have performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, the State Theatre in Pretoria, at Parliament and even Robben Island. They have brought out a CD of their songs and dances and frequently receive requests to perform at important events. I am impressed by the group’s perseverance and determination to succeed and I now completely understand the significance of their name. These women have every reason to feel proud.
Their outfits are a colourful blend of Tsonga and Northern Sotho traditions, given a modern twist.
Click on the images below to get a feel of how feisty these ladies are!
It’s been a fun, interesting and inspiring morning and to crown it all before we leave, both Petra and I are presented with beautiful beaded head bands. I treasure my gift and will use it to remind me never to give up on my dreams.