To the undiscerning eye, a Sarwa trance dance is entertainment but it may also provide an insight into the philosophical thought around gender relations in this ancient culture. In this particular case, what does it mean when male dancers circle around seated women? That should be an easy question but two people eminently qualified to answer it give two conflicting answers.
Kuela Kiema of the Dcuikhoe clan that lived in Xade before being relocated to what is now called New Xade, says that this arrangement occurs for purely practical purposes.
“The women produce very good percussion with their clapping and the men cannot do that. The men, who are the healers, need the dance to get into a trance. The women would be sitting around a fire and for very practical purposes, the men have to circle around the fire for warmth as well as to dance within the lit area,” he says.
On the other hand, the analysis of Joseph Campbell, a now deceased American anthropologist, is that the men circle around the women to acknowledge the fact that the latter are the givers of life and therefore more important than men. The male dancers respond to the women’s hand-clapping which Campbell interprets to mean that men literally dance to the tune of women because they are subservient to them. The first thing that just about anyone would do before accepting that theory would be to ask what an American could possibly know about Basarwa culture. This is the thing:
Campbell was no ordinary western scholar. Ordinary ones (and the list is very long) study western societies and then use the findings to make conclusions about the rest of human societies around the world. Not so with Campbell who travelled the world, studying a myriad of cultures and in the process, becoming one of the most influential scholars of his generation. Among his most ardent followers was George Lucas, the creator of the iconic Star Wars film series. Lucas has stated that Campbell was the inspiration for this series.
The conclusion that Campbell made after studying the Sarwa trance dance and relating it to similar dances was that the physical arrangement of the dancers was a reflection of how the Sarwa perceive women in their society.
While he doesn’t exactly agree with that conclusion, Kiema, a professionally qualified music teacher and the first resident of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to obtain a university degree, says that generally Sarwa communities are egalitarian.
“In my culture, the man is not the head of the family and roles are not assigned according to gender. However, there is recognition of the fact that a man would do certain tasks better than a woman because of his physical strength. But if a woman feels that she can out and hunt, no one stands in her way,” he says.
To buttress the general point he makes, Kiema adds that in his culture it is acceptable for women to approach men they take a romantic interest in and put the moves on them.
In something that is not really polyandry but snuggles a little too close to it, Kiema says that a married woman can openly carry on a romantic relationship with another man and not attract public censure as would be the case in other cultures.
“This hardly ever results in the men fighting over the woman and this can go on until the husband gives up and looks for another woman. This is just an indication of how liberal our society is,” he says.