Words: Devin B. Faris/ Photos: Phoebe Batchelor
Tickets bought. Flights booked. A brilliant crew assembled, a fantastic theme camp joined. Group planning for supplies, gifts, costumes, creative projects and camping setup well under way. Early March 2020, and we were all ready to go. Over a dozen friends from Europe, the United States, Thailand, and all across East and Southern Africa were gearing up to collectively celebrate life in spectacular fashion and with the most radical of intention, where my partner and I would celebrate our 30th and 33rd birthdays spaced just three days apart from one another, and where I would mark my fourth and perhaps final pilgrimage to the glorious week-long radical social experiment that is AfrikaBurn.
Then, in the span of a week, the greatest adventure of our four-continent global journey, one that fell squarely within the category of ‘catastrophically-large-public-gathering’, became just one of millions of global travel plans to fall victim to the global Covid-19 lockdown. AfrikaBurn, South Africa’s regional Burning Man event, a gathering of some 13,000 people in the Tankwa Karoo desert held in late April, was officially relegated to a tragic casualty of 2020’s desperate need for extreme social distancing. Months of discussions and excitement were suddenly muted, flights were refunded, money on tickets and camp fees were lost, and we all resigned ourselves to our respective lockdowns.
With a few weeks now to process the loss of these plans, and with all subsequent planned travel to Europe and the U.S. cancelled as well, we have had some time to discuss at great length around our Quarantine Team Dining Table the transformative power of the ethos of AfrikaBurn (like that of it’s mother burn, Burning Man) for getting us through challenging and radical times.
Each burn is guided by a set of principles that every participant at AfrikaBurn is expected to know, understand and live by. This set of 11 guiding mantras “were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and shared culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.” In the spirit of Afrikaburn’s unique eleventh principle ‘Each One, Teach One’, I thought it might be useful to share the wisdom and teachings to be gleaned from these principles. Taken together, these principles feel more valuable than ever before to offer a guiding light through unprecedented darkness.
1) Radical Self-Reliance
“AfrikaBurn encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”
AfrikaBurn is co-created by everyone, not by only a few for the enjoyment of many. Radical Self-Reliance at the Burn means that all participants are expected to bring everything they need to survive for a week in the desert. This includes water, food, supplies, and anything one needs to add to the magic of the event throughout the week. It is this spirit that fills each Burner with a radical sense of agency to provide for and create their own experience within the security and safety of their own resourcefulness.
This month, as we are all ordered by our leaders and public health experts to practice social distancing, radical self-reliance has become an essential principle for nearly everyone. With non-essential services cancelled and many countries policing the very use of roads and transport, popping down to the shops every time a new need arises must now be replaced by strategically procuring the supplies and resources we need to get through as much time as possible without violating mandated self-isolation. In a time where we cannot seem to trust others to behave in a way that ‘flattens the curve’ of infection, we must rely foremost on ourselves to remain healthy and safe from Covid-19.
As we spend each day inside our apartments, houses and other dwellings, some of which may be stifling at best and claustrophobic at worst, we must also think creatively about ways to maintain our psychological health and wellbeing, and draw from our inner-resources of calm, patience, presence, acceptance and love to get us through this uncertain time with as much grace as possible. While we are all benefiting enormously from the valiant efforts of countless individuals working to end this virus, we must learn to recognize and rely on our own resources and resilience in order to stay afloat.
2) Communal Effort
“Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.”
While ‘togetherness’ is a running theme throughout much of the Burn’s ethos (and such a concept seems somewhat misplaced during times of enforced isolation) none speak to the power of working together like Communal Effort. It is going to take everyone on this planet working hand in hand to end the spread of this virus. We can help each other out by staying isolated, by not hoarding what we don’t need, by constructively contributing to conversations about what we should be doing to stay safe, or by pitching in to causes and efforts to mitigate the impacts of the outbreak.
There is a narrative being formulated through each step of this war, and in wartime we all have a part to play; we can all make efforts to maintain some sense of optimism, hope and diligence in the global story around this virus. The era of globalization – wherein borders have become porous, travel widely available, and international trade the lifeblood of a global economy – is exactly what has facilitated the rapid spread of this outbreak. We must draw on the strengths of our connectedness and allow creative cooperation and collaboration to drive our global response to this crisis. We must remember that we are all in this together.
3) Radical Self-Expression
“Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.”
Thousands of ordinary and extraordinary individuals flock to Burning Man events around the world each year to show off their creativity and express themselves however they feel they may be limited in doing in their day-to-day lives. People build art cars that carry DJs across the desert trailed by scores of dancers, or design interactive costumes for others to marvel at, or lead group performances for all to enjoy. This same spirit of Radical Self-Expression is currently exploding across social media, with musicians live-streaming shows and DJ sets, yoga teachers moving their classes online, and spiritual guides offering comfort through writing and online gatherings. With so many bound to their homes and couches, now is a special time to express your highest self and share your talents to help ease the burden of this global crisis for many tuning in online around the world.
“We are devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”
An enormous part of the AfrikaBurn experience is Gifting, and it is the gifts that everyone brings to the table that make the Burn so unique. Building off the theme of radical self-expression, whatever we all have to bring to this collective experience to make the lives of others easier – whether a yoga or meditation class, a musical performance, an online tutorial on best practices for remote work, etc. – consider making this a gift to those in and beyond your spheres. Rather than charging money for every class you move to take place online, why not gift a few to those who make the active choice to tune in? Use this opportunity to think about what special gifts you have to offer the world, and make that offering with recognition of its power to transform the experience of someone else.
Isolation does not mean we need to relegate our Gifting to the internet. Your neighbors are going through the same thing you are, remember to check in on them and offer whatever gifts you can. AfrikaBurn is full of this – camps cook feasts to feed many but always with a little extra to offer the camp next door. Be creative about the gifts you can offer those around you right now. And remember, there are tens of thousands of people out there that are putting their health on the line to ensure that others are able to survive this pandemic – we must remain forever grateful for the gifts that these hospital workers, public health experts and volunteers are giving us every day.
“In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”
As within the Burn itself, the principle of decommodification is incredibly tricky in this pandemic. Decommodification means no money, no brands, no influence of capitalism. There is nothing for sale at a Burn, only gifts and the creativity of others to be shared widely. This year, the world economy is collapsing at unprecedented rates. Governments around the world are scrambling to rescue industries and corporations at rates rivaling – if not far surpassing – efforts to help each individual person. The bailouts for airline industries and desperate attempts to rescue the stock market to prove that leading economies are in less dyer straights than they actually are is, while an effort to save millions of a jobs, also a sort of testament to much of the misguided impact that capitalism continues to play across the world. As long as we care more about profit and the security of investments than the health of our neighbors and fellow citizens, we remain doomed to recreate the same broken, unequal systems that came before this crisis.
This pandemic is an opportunity to critically interrogate these money-driven structures and allow for generosity and altruism at a scale never before seen in this world. It is also an opportunity to critically assess how we spend money, what we spend it on, and why. How much of a role does consumption play in your daily life, and how necessary are these habits? If your hours are being cut back and your wages reduced, you likely need to cut frivolous purchases out of your budget, allowing for an opportunity to take stock of what really matters to you. Take a moment as well to think about the poverty in which so many live every day, and how a day off work or a day in lockdown is impacting so many around the world to a far greater degree. Be grateful for what you have, try to spend less, say goodbye to mindless consumption, and ideally, ‘gift’ more.
6) Leave No Trace
“Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”
Leave No Trace means to clean up after yourself and leave the desert even better than you found it. It means engaging in the act of ‘MOOPing’, or removing M.O.O.P. (matter out of place) as you go through your day. It is an effort to promote and preserve the beauty of our natural spaces. The natural world is already feeling the impacts of lockdowns and a slowing of international trade. As you read this, the ozone is slowly healing. Overcrowded tourist hotspots catering to millions of annual tourists are now seeing their wild ecosystems making a comeback. Green spaces are perhaps being valued by many more than ever before, now that everyone must spend the majority of their time walled off at home.
This is a powerful silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic: human beings are giving the planet a much-needed moment to breathe. Use this time to reflect on how our cars, airplanes, factories and farming behavior has long destroyed the planet we must all share. Wouldn’t we all like to return to a version of normal where we can breathe the air around us without a mask? If you are lucky enough to have access to green spaces to explore, exercise in and enjoy, get out there and enjoy them (at a safe distance from one another), and perhaps think about cleaning them while you’re at it – use your isolated nature walk as a trash pickup and leave the space better than how you found it.
And if you can’t get out into nature, clean your home, help out with household chores (especially for the males in the household, as women are disproportionately expected to take on these tasks in addition to child care and working remotely from home during this pandemic). Plant food in your garden, make your yard space beautiful, and plant as many trees as you have space for. The lungs of our planet and all those in it will thank you.
7) Radical Inclusion
“Everyone should be able to be a part of AfrikaBurn. As an intentional community, committed to inventing the world anew, we actively pursue mechanisms to address imbalances and overcome barriers to participation, especially in light of past, current and systemic injustice. We welcome and respect the stranger. Anyone can belong.”
AfrikaBurn is held in the deserts of South Africa, a country with a long history of brutal oppression and inequality that has pitted its inhabitants against one another. We see ongoing divisions like this across categories of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class and many others. Radical Inclusion intends to take aim at these divisions and collaboratively create an experience where all are welcome, and all can belong. Whether we like it or not, we are all a part of this global event. In fact, this is perhaps the first time in human history where we are all consciously tuned in to and actively experiencing something bigger than ourselves. Radical inclusion in this case speaks to the process of allowing our differences and barriers to be broken down in order to ensure all are included in the progress towards eradicating this pandemic.
While self-sufficiency is important, inclusion of others in our collective safety is paramount right now. No one of us should be bracing for the worst of this at the expense of our neighbors – both those next door and those across our borders. Nor should we be wasting time pointing fingers and casting blame at other countries or peoples. Women, children and people of color, as well as those from marginalized communities including immigrants, refugees and those confined to slums are all going to be disproportionately affected by this crisis. We need to focus on a spirit of Radical Inclusion to ensure that no one is left behind. This virus is now our global common enemy, and common enemies have fantastic potential to unite us, if only we allow them to. If we are able to work through this in a more inclusive way, we stand the chance of forming a more healthy and altogether inclusive world on the other side.
“Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”
At AfrikaBurn, everyone participating knows that the event is temporary, and at the end of the week everything around them will be burned to the ground, cleaned up, swept away and all that will be left will be the emptiness of the desert. A Burn, like all things in life, is temporary; Immediacy means making the most of the moment you are in, right now as it is happening (somewhat akin to carpe diem).
This global lockdown is temporary. For those of us who are privileged enough to be able to work from home, or to know that we will have a job waiting on the other side of all this, this grand and terrible global moment offers us all a space to do – or not do – a lot more of what we have been wanting the space for. Whether that is spending more quality time with family (from a safe distance), or learning piano or guitar, or binging new shows on Netflix, or painting more, or writing more, the key lesson to take in at this moment is to do it all NOW. Who knows how long this lockdown is going to last; while we all want it to be over as soon as possible, especially those not privileged enough to have income through this economic downturn, we should take advantage of it to the extent that we can. This thing is changing every single day and we do not know what it is going to look like tomorrow, or next week, or next month, so we should seize the opportunity to feel into the NOW of it all while the world is still on pause.
“Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”
AfrikaBurn only happens because of what participants make happen while co-creating it; the Participation of everyone is absolutely essential. Likewise, we all have a role to play in this global response. Whether you are a health worker working on the front lines in hospitals facing overwhelming numbers of cases, a supply chain manager running a warehouse to distribute medical supplies, a team leader for a company or organization that has been temporarily shut down with a staff anxious about what is to come, a parent whose kids are unable to go to school, a teacher moving your classes online for the first time, an artist producing content for others to enjoy while stuck at home, an advocate for the compounded need for a focus on women’s rights and children’s rights work as so many are sealed off in abusive households, or simply a listening ear for those you are on lockdown with, we all have a role to play in this thing. Our participation in the measures put in place to stop the spread of Covid-19, and any participation unique to us in this global moment, makes a difference.
10) Civic Responsibility
“We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with national and local laws.”
Civic Responsibility speaks to us all acting with responsibility and moral awareness to navigate this global crisis. Events like AfrikaBurn have honored this idea by canceling or postponing their large public gatherings, schools have honored this by moving classes online to the extent possible, governments are honoring this by communicating the need to stay indoors to their citizens, and we all have the opportunity to honor our Civic Responsibility by abiding by the regulations set in place to preserve our safety and wellbeing.
Yes, it is very difficult to stay locked inside our homes right now. Yes, it is extremely trying to not be able to meet up with and hug and hold our friends. Yes, it is devastating to have our daily livelihoods and routines disrupted on such a massive and uncertain scale. But we all must ensure that those for whom we are responsible (family members, employees, customers, etc.) are all playing by the same rulebook that is ultimately going to get us out of this thing alive. Do your part.
11) Each One, Teach One
“As a self-reliant community, we believe the responsibility of spreading our culture lies with each and every one of us. All of us are custodians of our culture – when the opportunity presents itself, we pass knowledge on.”
Each One, Teach One is a principle unique to AfrikaBurn that speaks to our ability to co-create not only experiences, but knowledge itself. There is a culture war going on in countries around the world right now. There are those who believe that the measures currently in place are wholly necessary to stop this virus. There are others who believe that it is all part of an overblown response and that the extremity of the global lockdown is not worth the economic repercussions. One of these positions is constructed for the health, safety and wellbeing of every human being on Earth; the other is driven by selfishness and greed. It is up to each of us who recognize the importance of staying at home and the need for this global experiment in radical isolation to encourage others to do their part to spread the good word.
If you are experienced at working remotely, pass along some tips and tricks to others. If you are a practiced meditator or yogi, share with others the wisdom you have gleaned to help them navigate the uncertainty. If you have experience with crises and limitations in movement due to working in conflict or natural disaster scenarios, provide some reassurance to others that this is all temporary and we just need to power through. If you are skilled at growing your own food, pass that essential survival knowledge to others. And if you have been blessed enough to spend a week of your life out in the desert surrounded by thousands of other radical human beings who have the audacity to dream of a better world, share the wisdom you have acquired through participation in those spaces with anyone who might benefit from what you have learned.
We all have the opportunity to forge a better and healthier world on the other side of this. Let us all do it together, and allow our efforts to be guided by principle, by right action, and by a radical vision for the power of this moment. As we often say at the Burn, “You don’t always get the Burn you want, but you get the Burn you need.” Nothing is going according to our visions for 2020 right now, and I am certainly still grieving the loss of the immensely transformative experience that AfrikaBurn provides. But perhaps this is all needed, on a collective and personal level. Use this time to think about how we can all work together to make the most of it, and to get what we all need in the end.
AfrikaBurn, like all regional Burns around the world, takes place to remind us that a stronger, healthier, better, more just and free human existence is possible…it is up to all of us to embrace those possibilities and create the world anew, together.