The most eye-catching part of the seperu dance is when the Nandavwe Group performers make mournful humming sounds.
The dancers, all clad in a national-colours get-up, are arrayed in a semi circle as they sing a Subiya song and keep up spirited hand-clapping.
Now and again a couple detaches itself from the circle and rejoins it after a sprightly display of choreographed steps on the open-air dance floor.
At one point during the performance, the singing stops abruptly. On cue, all bend at the waist, start to hum and play the foil to that with clapping. A male dancer, wearing a skirt, breaks off from one end, prances the length of the semicircle, rhythmically jerking his upper body, craning his neck and his bobbing head.
To the uninitiated, Nandavwe’s somewhat melancholic song might sound like the blues. However, as group spokesman, John Mainga explains, seperu music is for happy occasions.
“We perform the music during celebratory occasions: during the harvest home (letsema), when we welcome visitors or during the installation ceremony of a chief. In the past, before the restrictions on hunting were imposed, we would do the seperu after a successful hunting expedition when we would be gathered at the kgotla for a communal feast,” reveals Mainga, as he catches his breath between sets at a Sunday evening performance at Mowana Lodge in Kasane.
The humming imitates the chuckling call of a laughing dove and the stage act enacts a courting ritual between a male and female. A bird enthusiast suggests that at the message level, the dove’s ‘oo-took-took-oo-roo’ is essentially a complaint: either ‘you are near my turf’ or ‘hey, pay attention to me.’ Mainga suggests seperu is the latter.
There are plentiful laughing doves in the area where Mainga comes from. These birds rely heavily on water and stay close to areas that have lots of it. They typically prefer arid scrub or thorny bush country near water.
Socially, these birds are more advanced than the human race in that they don’t have to be told through health warnings on billboards how to behave. Laughing doves are monogamous and pair for life.
Mainga works at the landboard office in Kasane but other Nandavwe troupe members had to travel 120 kilometers from the village of Satau to perform at this particular event. All members of the group are elderly and in explaining this oddity, Mainga says that young people tend to be ‘shy’ when it comes to doing the seperu.
However, some young people have started coming forward, he adds, and are being groomed. Their absence at the Mowana show would suggest that it is still too early for them to start imitating laughing doves for a performance that will shortly be seen by millions around the world.
Although officially registered as a traditional dance troupe, Nandavwe still has a long way to go in terms of raising its national, even local, profile. Mainga says that they would like to take their dance to the rest of the country and that funds permitting, would make arrangements to perform on the Mokaragana show which airs weekly on Saturday evenings on Btv. Mokaragana showcases local talent from across the country.
Such hardship notwithstanding, Nandavwe is making good and useful friends.
On the evening in question, the group was sharing the stage with Matsosangwao ÔÇô winners of last year’s and inaugural President’s Day Award in the Traditional Dance category.
Matsosangwao is based in Kasane, where it easily dominates the market. On occasion, it does shows across the border in Livingstone, Zambia, where it also has a huge following.
Mainga says that they have concluded talks and will soon get spots on Matsosangwao gigs.
The irony of it all is that the world may get to know seperu and Nadavwe before the rest of Botswana does. The group’s performance was filmed for a special SADC documentary that will be shown on international channels like National Geographic and BBC ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This project, which the Botswana government is part of, is being undertaken by an expedition called Boundless Southern Africa. The expedition is going around nine countries in the region to capture the beauty of ‘nature, culture and community’ in all.