AfrikaBurn is a Sign of Things to Come

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“The Clan” – AfrikaBurn’s Main Effigy

This part is familiar. I‘d done it before. Many times. 12 gallons of water. 16 oz. of instant coffee. 32 pairs of socks. Four packages of baby wipes. Chapstick. Lotion. Earplugs. A headlamp. A backup headlamp. A backup headlamp for the backup headlamp. Three times as many batteries as I’ll actually use.

I’m no stranger to Black Rock City, but for AfrikaBurn — the largest of more than 60 official Burning Man Regional Events worldwide — I was a newbie.

I’d spent the last 24 hours getting repeatedly lost driving on what had, until this point in my life, been the wrong side of the road. Armed with a cartoonish tourist map exclusively highlighting a particular brand of petrol station, I explored Cape Town in a rental van covered in what any upstanding member of South African society would consider an offensive paint job. In the 24 hours since landing, I’d put a decade of Burning Man experience to the test — acquiring all the gear and just-add-water sundries I couldn’t cram into my two carry on bags, quickly realizing the jet lag wasn’t helping me get a grasp on the currency exchange rate. And here I had thought packing all of my gear into six large tote bins over the course of a month was challenging.

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Now it’s go time.

Time for the dawn alarm clock. For last minute packing. For the best laid plans turned fuck-it-just-shove-it-in-there. For the list of things I know I’d forgotten and need to get along the way but never actually get around to writing down. And then the drive. The long drive. The long. hot. dusty. drive. into. the desert. HWY 447 in Nevada is a walk in the park compared to the R355. Your muscles ache from gripping the steering wheel after the second hour of washboard dirt road.

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Then I arrived.

I waited in line. Showed my ticket at the gate. Had my vehicle searched. Got my WTF Guide. Rang the Virgin bell. Hugged a Greeter. Navigated the backstreets. Found a camping spot. And then thought:

This is fucking trippy.”

I knew this place. It was Burning Man.

Kind of.

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To be more accurate: the physical things —  the desert, the streets, the climate, the mutant vehicles, theme camps, and installations — were somewhat reminiscent of Black Rock City. But the energy — the explosive creativity and the communal acknowledgment that thousands of passions created this amazing thing — that was the exact same as the ‘secret sauce’ of Burning Man. AfrikaBurn’s “Tankwa Town” was a thriving example of how Burning Man values are expressed by a community far beyond Black Rock City.

At 10,000 participants, Tankwa Town had the intimacy and manageability of BRC in the late ’90s, but the LED-lights-to-flamethrower ratio assured me this was 2015. Despite the geographical similarities to Black Rock City, ”Burning Man” as a set of values was alive and well in ways unique to the region, making Tankwa Town truly a home for South African Burners. Streetside BBQs were the primary means of cooking. Packs of children ran around together. Long drop toilets took the place of porta-potties. The DPW were actually friendly.

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Don’t get me wrong. AfrikaBurn is not some replica community just “getting by” because they can’t make it to BRC. Theirs is not an attempt to recreate or impersonate what happens in Nevada. It is a thriving community with its own rituals, language and traditions. An event can’t be separated from the context of the local community. Each official Burning Man Regional event takes different forms in different places. Like theme camps themselves, geographical regions have different desires and needs for fostering a genuinely transformative experience. A concept like “Radical Inclusion” is fundamental to any event’s ecosystem, but that principle takes on a uniquely different context in a country 21 years out from the end of the atrocities of Apartheid.

The only people able to create a community event with this vitality and relevancy is the local community itself. It wouldn’t work if the Burning Man organization tried to impose an event on a geographical area and expected it to be authentic. Burning Man pops up where it’s needed. In South Africa, a country still combatting the reality of xenophobia, passing a road signpost that reads “Burners Welcome Here” wasn’t just a sign of acceptance of people like me, but a sign that Burning Man was helping promote acceptance of others of all kinds. I’d traveled to the opposite side of the world to a place struggling to heal wounds left from warring tribes and found that my tribe, the only tribe I’ve ever really had, was openly welcomed here.

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And my tribe is a global tribe. Many folks I met at AfrikaBurn have not and will likely never come to Black Rock City, but they are Burners through and through. AfrikaBurners have just as much ingenuity, creativity, and collective spirit as any group I’ve seen in the makeshift city in Nevada I’ve called home.

Then it hit me: Black Rock City may not be as precious as I had assumed.

Our City of Dust is not that special.

Burning Man is not that fragile.

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And while at first this fact was kind of saddening (the way a child’s heart is broken upon realizing they’re not the center of the universe), it was in that moment that it became irreversibly apparent to me: Burning Man is not confined to Black Rock City. The elements at the core of the Burning Man experience may be more fundamental than we realize. Black Rock City is an event. Burning Man is a movement. We are not stuck inside the trash fence.

So then, how do I, as a proud Burner and someone who goes to work each day at Burning Man Headquarters, find my place in the Great Burner Diaspora?

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As I see it, our role has changed as an organization. We’ll still build the container for That Thing in the Desert, but our responsibility is no longer simply to produce an event that can be used as a replicable model. We are shifting into the role of supporting and connecting the evolution of an array of events and communities around the globe. Some look much like BRC with weeklong excursions into the desert. Some take place in urban warehouses and maker spaces. Some only exist online.

These communities face unique challenges. And Burning Man as an organization is uniquely suited to help. Gone are the days when we lie to our bosses about our brother’s fourth wedding to galavant around in the desert for a week. These days, we’ve got politicians — liberal and conservative — standing up as advocates. International media outlets are desperate to cover the event (although disappointed once they find out we won’t give them free tickets). As a cultural organization, we are gaining influence where before we made excuses.

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However, with great power comes great responsibility.

We owe it to the Burners who built this magical thing to be a champion for their causes. We need to support the artists, makers, doers, planners, thinkers and tinkerers to help their communities thrive and grow. Burning Man, formerly as a place and now as an idea, is a nexus of possibilities. It is a fire around which people come in from the edges to gather and share. As an organization, we are being called upon from many places to support this incredible group of people — whether their home is Black Rock City, Tankwa Town, a small town in the rural Midwest, a disaster stricken swath of Haiti, or anywhere else Burners are to be found. We are advocates. We are teachers. We are historians. Philosophers. Enablers. Storytellers. Lobbyists. Donors. We are the keepers of a collective wisdom. We are a megaphone in front of the voice of the many.

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“Subterrafuge” by Nathan Victor Honey

Because of this, the nonprofit Burning Man Project has a responsibility to champion these causes with authenticity and integrity. With inclusiveness and transparency. With humility and honesty. The transition into a nonprofit has increased the need for these values and given reason to reexamine some longtime systems of operation. We are learning a lot along the way, and I have no doubt that we are creating an organization better suited to support Burning Man culture around the world.

For those of you who eschew Burning Man because it is no longer the same desert campout you first fell in love with, I’m sorry, but this is bigger than you. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than Larry Harvey. The secret is out. Not the secret about some party in Nevada or about the symbols and phrases we use to identify others as “one of us.” The secret is out that together we can rewrite the rules of existence to focus on principles that create lives of actual, tangible, and shareable value and avoid the over-commodified consumer wasteland that is inevitably headed our way if we don’t get off our asses and do something about it.

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As I see it, we have a choice. We can let this secret be co-opted and diluted by the great big world now discovering it, or we can step into stewardship and guide it. We can let apathy push us into a world of entitlement and snark, or we can join together to make this grand experiment actually matter in a significant way. There has never been anything like this, and when we actually walk the walk, we absolutely have the potential to change the world.

I’m proud to be one of the many who has taken up this flag. I consider it an honor to help tend this fire. May it bring many warmth and light in the times to come, whether they are in Black Rock City, South Africa, or somewhere in between.

All the photos in this post are taken by myself. To see the rest of my pictures from AfrikaBurn, you can head over to my gallery and check ‘em out.

About the author: Zac Cirivello

Zac Cirivello

As the Media Relations Coordinator, Zac helps people tell their stories about Burning Man through words, pictures, and sounds. He first became involved with the Burning Man Organization as a member of the Center Camp Cafe crew in 2008 and eventually joined the Department of Public Works in 2012. For over a decade, Zac has been involved in nearly every department of event production for festivals throughout the US and has served as the Outreach Director, co-producer, photographer, and videographer for The Bloom documentary series about festivals and festival culture.

21 Comments on “AfrikaBurn is a Sign of Things to Come

  • This is a wonderful blog post for a few reasons:

    First, holy shit, you’re a good writer. And B, it’s good to see that kooky camping trip in the dust morphing into something else and spreading organically.

    It’s easy to complain about Burning Man isn’t anymore, or (like me) about trivial things in Media Mecca on the playa. In a world stricken by the cancer of commercialism and the brutal things humans can do to each other, the spread of Burning Man culture to far reaches of the earth in formerly oppressive (I know South Africa has a way to go, but it’s made serious progress) nations.

    I hope some of the principles of Burning Man survive long after we’re gone, after the event itself is gone. And, I hope it’s always fun and big and tacky.

    Thanks for sharing this and I’ll see you in the dust.

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    • Tom says:

      I am not clear on how people driving for thousands of miles to BRC are creating a better world by having their access limited onto US public trust lands with car passes. It’s not like you can carry all your stuff out onto the playa. My sense is this is some kind of politico deal with BLM to allow continued increase in BRC population. If so, shame on organizers for caving to that crap.
      That aside BM is crazy cool in spite of all the rules surrounding it.

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  • Vera says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and reflections beyond observations! I’m (regretfully) not a regular Burner despite being surrounded by the BM community in the Bay Area but this year I got a chance to attend Midburb in Israel and I was blown away by the authenticity of the experience across the world. It lights my heart to know that Burning Man principles are not limited to a place and a core group of people. Maybe this is something bigger that can change the world. We already know that it is, and these regional events are a proof that the wheels are in motion!

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  • ranger bob says:

    kiff post dude
    lekker to have you in Tankwa Town
    and as head ranger of AB I welcome all international rangers to come spend some time in the African dust

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  • H says:

    This is lovely. As DPW boss, thank you for acknowledging that we were friendly, the success of our PR campaign* goes global! Hooraay

    come one, come all, Tankwa Town welcomes you!
    Just don’t drop your cigarette buds on the ground…

    *rest assured global DPW family, most of us still sit on top of our ‘cuddle bubble’ watching the temple burn from afar, so we can be crude and loud and all tough and shit.

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  • Rooibaard says:

    Thank you for this article and sharing my feeling towards a massive global community. I attended Midburn, in Israel twice and see where they are going slowly, following Burning Man almost to the T with all that they do and say, the second year around they are becoming more to their own burn and the people, traditions and personality. Burning Man gave us that, but as you said it gave us the space to grow and become our own. Afrika Burn 5 times running for me gave me, is a place of community and this year i learned even more what our community is, the strength within us all and to all other people around the world and knowing that I am not just part of Tankwa town anymore but a global family. I got asked at Midburn and sometimes at AB and in default world have I been to BM/Blackrock/Nevada my answer is becoming more and more refined : No I don’t need to go to BM. The world wide movement all over the world is more important for me then to go to Burning man. I might go one day if it comes my way but for now there is a world of Burn’s to see and people to meet.

    Thank you for this article.

    Cheers

    In Love and Dust we trust.

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  • HoneyBee says:

    Wow, Zac.

    I knew you were awesome, but this post takes it to a whole new level.

    The magic interactions that make being human so delightful have never been more apparent to me than at a Burner event or interacting with individual Burners. How can it be so different from the culture that surrounds us the rest of the time? I can only assume that it the 10 Principles that guide us as we express ourselves freely and joyfully.

    That a Burn event could occur in a place so recently fraught with hatred and violence brings a happy ache to my heart. Yes, it is now a time for living the talk, globally, in everything we do. As Elbert Hubbard said over 100 year ago, “Responsibility is the price of freedom.”

    Complaints and pettiness aside, it is within each of us to share this with others, to MOOP, to include, to be responsible for ourselves, to help.

    It’s a good life.

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  • Chesley Tivald says:

    ZAC!!!!!!! ITS Chelsey! The Girl you met in the SFO airport on our way to Afrikaburn! HOW ARE YOU!!!!!! ????

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  • Thanks for finally talking about >AfrikaBurn is a Sign of Things to Come <Loved it!

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  • nuclearferret says:

    when i saw the post titled “afrikaburn is a sign of things to come”, i was honestly curious about diversity. from the pictures, it doesn’t seem like there is much, and that saddens me.

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  • Cyndi Jakus says:

    Nicely expressed, Zac! I am a 17-year burner and was also at Afrikaburn. It was a wonderful experience, reminiscent of my first years at Burning Man.

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  • HeadThenHeart says:

    @nuclearferret – Diversity? Damn good question – and an often-asked one – but just remember: just as one article on Burning Man can never communicate the entire experience, so no single blogpost or photo can tell the whole Afrika Burn story.

    HOWEVER, this here video gets pretty darn close:

    https://vimeo.com/133557002

    The more you look, the more you’ll see (diversity).

    Thanks, Zac! Awesome piece.

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  • Reelgirl says:

    This was very inspiring for me as I get ready to head home to BRC. I was approaching it with ambivalence but you inspired my heart in the right way to go home. Thank you, Zac.

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  • Soz for spelling your name incorrectly Zac!
    Please send me your email!

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  • Nathan says:

    I do not want to digress from the general mood created by this lovely article. Thanks Zac! But just to clarify – nuclearferret, I am assuming that in the Northern Hemisphere “diversity” is the PC way of saying “black people”? Correct?

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  • James says:

    History will look back at this period, as we look back at the 60’s. This is a global movement, it is not just Burning man, there are festivals elsewhere that share and are spreading the same values, based on giving. Some have been going for 20 plus years. But now is the time. Rupert Sheldrake talks about morphic resonance, this is collective, we are a growing tribe, with growing influence. Our combined wizardry is having an impact on many aspects of society. This is not about heirarchy its about community. It is part of the natural evolution of mankind, almost u-social.

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  • Scott says:

    For those that travel internationally to arrive in SA, what do people do for all the required gear needed. Do you fly in with a backpacking (airline friendly) tent & sleeping bag? Do those that fly in rent local equipment etc?

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    • HeadThenHeart says:

      You could always fly in with stuff, but things like tents, sleeping bags etc are easily available and relatively cheaply for those on NHemisphere currencies. There are many stores that stock camping gear. Then again, there’s also a group on Facebook called Afrikaburn International, where people can connect with local burners and borrow stuff, or even find camps to fall in with.
      A smart method that friends from the UK/US have employed has been hiring a ute / pickup or van, and sleeping in the back of those. Then all you need is a mattress and bedding.
      You can rent tents & bikes and stuff, but it’s usually cheaper to buy. The urban centers (Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban etc) have all the kinda stores you’d usually find in the US (though not of the same name).

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