Celebrating Africa Day...Two South African women in Pedi attire

By Ivy Mphahlele

THE Africa Day celebrations on 27th May this year at Barnato Park in Johannesburg will go down, in my memory lane, as a poignant reminder of just how diverse and rich African cultural traditions are.

Being a South African who has lived in the UK for several years, Africa Day celebrations this year coincided with my trip home to bury my sister. So perhaps the rawness of my emotions might have added some piquancy into how I connected with the 54th celebration of Africa Day.

Barnato Park is situated in the middle of Berea suburb in Johannesburg which has experienced affluence, adverse poverty and anything in between, within a decade. It’s hard to think of a better open venue in Johannesburg than Barnato Park for celebrating an event as quintessentially historic as Africa Day.

The park is named after Barney Barnato a Jewish man (born Barney Isaacs) in the East End Jewish quarter of London.

Barney apparently emigrated to South Africa during the Diamond Rush in 1888, landing in the Cape, with just £30 in his pocket and 40 cigars to sell. He hassled like other fortune hunters and subsequently became a very rich man. Among the assets Barney’ acquired in his rags to riches venture is the 11 hectares property in Berea, which he laid out as a park for public occasions.

One of the incidental things that caught my eye as I mingled with the crowds was a Johannesburg based group marking the 27th May 2017 as a day to remember the victims of xenophobic violence.

Super charged with my emotions, as I was that day, I also couldn’t help noticing that various African countries were represented by men, women and children in their national dresses and costumes.

The people I met and befriended that day were like extended family members brought together for the first time in an open air venue.

I felt a strong sense of belonging as I rubbed shoulders with people from all over Africa, in their colourful traditional attires.

I watched African women dancing gracefully, uninhibited and without a care in the world! Their exhibitionism reminded me of Fela Kuti song, “African woman go dance, she go dance fire dance!”

I also mingled with political figures, celebrities and successful business men and women and marvelled at the fact that they too had abandoned their western clothes in favour of their traditional regalia! Whichever way I looked I saw people adorned in their Akan, Pedi, Tswana, Zulu, Ndebele, Kongo, Mende, Shangaan, Igbo, Shona, Yoruba, Himba, and Chaga attires.

The air was reeking with the flavour of roast meat and the smell of freshly cooked food laid out in the stalls up and down the park. As I walked around, taking it all in, tasting different dishes from across Africa and listening to African music blaring out through the loud speakers, I felt as though I was inside a bubble of African diversity.

On one food stall I came upon traditional African delicacies such as you would never find in any western supermarket. I watched in astonishment as nimble fingers converged from all sides to snap the delicacies. In no time at all there was nothing left  on that table! 

I found myself reminiscing about how there must have been occasions, deep in the past, when our ancestors must have gathered to celebrate cultural events, with those same delicacies laid out and perhaps some calabashes of home brewed beer also at hand!

For those generations, life must have been comparatively much tougher, no running water etc. But who is to say that eating protein rich insects and organically produced maize, and sorghum didn’t give them a more balanced diet than some of us in this day and age?

Nor for that matter the thrill they derived from drinking palm wine they tapped from trees themselves or alcohol they made from the Marula fruit.

I left Barnato park feeling both rejuvenated and in a somewhat reflective mood. Within the few hours I had spent there, I had witnessed the best of Africa, seen beautifully attired men and women mingling in a spirit of oneness, sharing food, dancing to the sounds of Africa and sharing their merriness.

It had been a truly intoxicating experience!

Why then, I asked myself, couldn’t this spirit of unity be emulated in the way African nations relate to each other at governmental levels? Why can’t this unity be projected in our everyday lives? Why can’t our governments build on this spirit to encourage meaningful economic and social ties across the continent?

Why doesn’t Africa use its vast resources for the benefit of its people, like China does? Why isn’t Africa harnessing the vast skill base among African technocrats spread out all over the world, for the benefit of the continent?

Questions, questions, questions!

I also couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that the same African leaders who take centre stage on Africa Day celebrations and give heart rending speeches about African unity, think nothing of siphoning state resources for their own benefit with one hand, which dishing out government jobs to their equally corrupt lackeys with the other hand.

I am sure there are thousands, if not millions of Africans in the diaspora like me, who live in Europe, America, Canada and elsewhere, with a sense of deep regret.