Saturday, August 13, 2005

Shake it like a polaroid picture

I realized there was one more Africa story begging to be told.

The tale of the African nightclub vs. Naomi

Even though I’m sure it’s plainly obvious, even in my prose, I feel the need to explain, for those of you who haven’t met me in real life, that I am whiter than white. I’m the whitest there is, and I’m not just talking about my pale, pale skin (which is, no doubt about it, supa dupa white).

I have no rhythm. I know nothing about rap, hip-hop, or R&B—much to the dismay of one of the workcamp participants who was endlessly asking my opinion of the new R. Kelly video (or videos—apparently there’re twelve that are, like, a day in the life of R. Kelly. Or something.) or the new release by some other international sensation whom I’d never heard of.

I don’t use the latest slang—in fact, I can’t even bring myself to write an example of what I think the latest slang is because I’d be wrong.

I’m not cool, is what I’m saying. And my coolness is especially lacking in the realm of black culture.

And, white folks can’t dance. We’ve all seen the white boy overbite, the shopping cart, the paralyzed step-shuffle of bad white-boy dancing. Girls have it a bit easier, because we mostly just need to shake our booty, but trust me, it’s still possible to mess that up.

That being said, I love to dance. I spent my entire childhood (avoiding sports) in one sort of dance class or another, and when the music is good and I’m with friends, I can have an absolute blast. It took me a long time to get to this place—this place being one where I am willing and able to dance in public, in front of people who might look, without having drunk entirely too much alcohol. But at a certain point I realized that I was having fun and nobody really cared how I danced. Or if they did, it was their problem.

Nevertheless, I was nervous going to the nightclub in Africa. Especially because it was fairly unlikely that I’d hear Bon Jovi, Prince or any of my other tried and true dance favorites.

But I was going with my Batswana friends, and they also said that they were terrible dancers but didn’t care, and anyway, I wasn’t going to be in Africa and not go to the nightclub with my friends.

So off we went.

I wish that I had a video camera, because mere words are not enough to describe to you what I saw.

The best I can do is offer a comparison.

Have you ever been to a folk festival? You know those people who stand right at the front and dance? There they are, barefoot, with grungy braids or dreadlocks, wearing loose-fitting Indian textiles, dancing like they don’t even see the rest of us. They bend at the waist, pump their arms, wag their butts, and shake their heads. Three steps forward, wag, wag, wag, three staps back, lean back, pump, shake, pump.

My friend and I used to call it dirty hippy dancing, and the only other time I’d seen anything like it was when I was an exchange student in France and I went to a jazz festival with my host parents. Who are wonderful, brilliant, smart, fun people, and also? Dirty hippies. And at the jazz concert, there they all were—40 and 50 year olds, with long stringy hair, in sandals and loose-fitting Indian textiles: step, step, wag, wag, step, shake, pump, pump, pump.

Now pictures a dim nightclub, full of black men in their twenties, in baggy jeans and jerseys, rocking their do-rags and dreadlocks—dancing like dirty hippies.

The first time I went, it was Sunday, African Jazz night, so I thought maybe on a regular night people would dance differently. But the following week, I went on a Saturday night, and let me tell you—it was worse.

The beat in African jazz is slow and strong, and on the Sunday night I was there, most people seemed to be following it. On the Saturday, the music was still all African, but a different style, with a faster more elusive beat. And so people just danced to whatever beat they felt like, striding all over the floor, wagging their butts, leaning back and shaking their heads at the ceiling, pumping their arms like nobody’s business. They all looked like they were on acid trips—or at least, what I imagine a room full of people tripping would look like, since I’ve never actually been in one.

But, and I’ve learned this at many a folk festival and at that jazz concert in France, it’s damn fun dancing like a dirty hippy. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun dancing like a dirty hippy than sitting like a wall flower. So I got out there on the floor with Ras and Stu, two Batswana guys from the workcamp, and Kutlo, the Motswana girl (when she wasn’t on her cell phone dealing with some friend-related drama). I wagged and stomped and pumped, and every once in a while I threw in a booty shake for good measure.

The only other white person in the room was Gabriele, the Italian guy from the workcamp, but he was sitting on the side with Phozah, a Motswana guy, who had a stern principled stance against drinking, and also never danced.

I was not the only white person in Maun, but for the reaction I provoked, I may have been the first white person the Batswana had ever seen dance.

The women just stared, and, when I stared back, would smile shyly.

The guys however, were different story. It took a song or two, but before long they started approaching. I felt a little like a straggling antelope being cut off from the herd. They would approach our little circle, dance with the guys for a phrase of music or two (something that would not fly in an American night club) and then slowly cut me off and back me away from the original circle.

The only problem was, there were like 10 guys trying that at once, so before I knew it, I was dancing in a much larger circle, with my friends on the opposite side, and seven strangers, staring at me intently, in between.

It was a little hilarious and a little intimidating, but I mostly avoided eye contact, and when I got too far away from my friends, I would just walk around the strangers until I was next to them again. The guys mostly kept their hands to themselves (on Sunday night; the following Saturday they got more grabby), and most were too shy to actually talk to me. Most gave up relatively quickly (and were immediately replaced by others) when I failed to respond, though there was one or two who kept trying through several songs.

I have never gotten so much attention in my life, but actually, that was fairly typical of the reaction I got from almost all of the men I met in Botswana. They don’t have a history of racial tension there, so to them my white skin was simply exotic. Plus, it meant that I was probably rich, at least in Botswana terms. Actually, the women were often equally interested in starting a conversation with me, especially when they learned I was American. But of course, the guys didn’t want to stop with a conversation. And, not that I do this anywhere, but Botswana is the last place on earth you want to have a random hook-up—the HIV infection rate is well over 30%, and higher among people in their mid- to late-twenties.

I met a white woman from Germany on the bus from Gaborone (Botswana’s capital) to Jo’burg, and we shared a cab to the airport. I had seen her in Gaborone saying a tearful goodbye to her Motswana boyfriend, and, as we sat and chatted in the airport before our flights, she told me about how their relationship began. She had come to Botswana for a nine-month volunteer project, and intended to stay single (because HIV, so, obviously) but soon found the attention overwhelming. She started dating her boyfriend because she thought it would be easier to fend off the advances if she weren’t single, and he seemed like the best of the bunch.

Of course, she ended up falling in love, has flown him to Germany to visit her, and is now planning to move to Botswana permanently to marry the boy.

That’s a more extreme solution than I needed. But being white in Botswana is probably the closest I’ll ever come to being a celebrity. Which, to tell the truth, was never something I thought I would enjoy, anyway.


Blogger Susan said...

Your account of your visit has really been fascinating. What an experience. Love your description of dirty, hippy dancing. I wish I could be that free.

5:38 AM  
Anonymous Dolores said...

Being Western is also like being a celebrity in some parts of India. We should go together.

And do some dirty, hippy dancing. Because I LOVE me some dirty, hippy dancing, but haven ever done it...

12:15 PM  
Blogger Riona said...

Dirty hippie dancing! this is a great story. So glad you're back. When I lived in London, in Brixton, the council would have reggae concerts in the park all through the summer and I still associate dirty hippy dancing and Red Stripe with a good time ...

9:51 PM  
Blogger David said...

Oh for the good old days of dirty hippie dancing. I'm not sure I remember ever doing dirty hippie dancing, mind you. The memories are clouded somehow.
I would imagine all the herd mentality attention was quite exhilirating and tense at the same time. I mean, boys will be stupid boys now and then. Maybe your celebrity status was pre-emptive.
Quite a trip. Yes. Will you go back?

12:53 PM  
Blogger Irene said...

Great story!

12:26 AM  
Blogger jeanne said...

I sooo want to go to Botswana so people can think i'm a cool dancer, too!!

Great story!! More, more, more please!

Tell us about the food.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Noames said...

Hee! I'm not sure they thought I was a good dancer--just a white one, which was different and exciting. But I figured whatever I did, if it was weird they would just chalk it up to my whiteness, and figure that's what we do.

7:49 AM  

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