By Heather Dugmore – Pompoms, pennywhistles and a flurry of white sneakers edge forward the rhythm, while the drums ground the sound. It is a timeless evocation of life, conveyed through the medium of the music, the dancers and the instruments. Every aspect of the performance is part of the message, including the cowhide used for the drum skins and the kudu horns, calling the people home.
‘There is so much deep knowledge in our African traditions and in our communities but so much of it is tacit knowledge in the minds of our elders who will not be with us for too much longer,’ says Mahlaga Molepo, co-founder of the Molepo Traditional Dance Cooperative Limited and a librarian at Library & Information Services, Tshwane University of Technology, Nelspruit campus.
As a Master’s scholar of information science he has read extensively on African traditional music, dance and culture. ‘Over the centuries researchers have investigated this but many have done so without the active engagement of the people who still practise these art forms. This is a serious gap in African musicology that we need to rectify.’
Compounding this is the loss of traditional systems of education, as Molepo explains: ‘Institutions that existed for structured traditional knowledge transfer have been greatly marginalised in the modern education system.’
Having grown up in the Ga Molepo community in Limpopo Province, he was concerned about the loss of this knowledge and set out to host workshops on the region’s traditional Northern Sotho art forms, including its legendary beadwork and music and dance form called Dinaka/Kiba.
‘Dinaka/Kiba is an important heritage from pre-colonial Southern Africa,’ says Molepo. ‘The music is one of the oldest indigenous genres in southern Africa, yet in spite of this, Dinaka/Kiba groups throughout Limpopo struggle to make a living from their talents. They receive a total of R300 for a whole day’s performance, usually at weddings and communities events. This covers little more than their food for the day.
‘It pains me that they receive so little for their performances when other musicians are paid tens of thousands of rands for a short appearance. It further pains me that the older people who understand what our traditions are all about are passing on, and the next generation will be left with questions that no one is around to answer,” says Molepo.
He applied for a development grant from the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) in late 2016 to evaluate the benefits and effectiveness of an inter-generational knowledge transfer workshop which took place in 2015 with young and old Dinaka/Kiba practitioners in Ga Molepo, Limpopo.
The workshop looked at Northern Sotho beadwork and the traditional cultural meaning and value of this art form. The “dipheta”, for example, is the traditional beaded necklace, where a softened river reed is used as the foundation on which the beads are woven. Dinaka/Kaba dancers and musicians wear the dipheta during performances. It is worn by all members of the community, men and women, for traditional events, or as everyday wear.
Molepo’s application for ACT funding was one of nine projects selected from 724 applications. ACT is South Africa’s premier independent arts funding and development agency, funded by the Nedbank Arts Affinity to extend arts and culture opportunities to all communities in South Africa.
The ACT-funded workshop was hosted in December 2016 in Mankgaile, a thriving rural community in GaMalepo, comprising about 35 villages. Seven Dinaka/Kiba practitioners over the age of 60 were paid to share their cultural knowledge at the workshop to a group of young people from the community.
The older practitioners explained that it is a highly spiritual art form where the music and dancing is an expression of gratitude for life and an awareness of the great connection with all that has gone before and that remains with us in the present and future.
In the evaluation of the inter-generational workshop, the young people expressed their fascination with what their elders had to say, and asked for additional workshops so that they could learn more. They said there is so much they do not know, and they realised that a big part of this is that they no longer spend time with their elders. After school they spend time doing their homework or socialising with their friends or on their cellphones or watching TV.
‘The older people were taken aback with the effort that was made to put together the workshop and create a platform where they could share their knowledge,’ explains Molepo who wrote up and analysed the interactions at the Dinaka/Kiba workshop.
The academic article he subsequently produced has been submitted for publishing. It is titled: “Yay or nay: the use of structured workshops for inter-generational knowledge transfer and skills development among Dinaka/Kiba practitioners in Ga Molepo, Limpopo province”.
Going forward Molepo says: ‘I would like to see a paradigm shift in academia, especially with regard to ethnomusicologists doing more engaged research in communities that keep traditional music and dance alive. I would like to see these art forms far more prominently focused on in academia, and the traditions and cultures documented and kept alive.
‘I would also like government and the state organs that deal with arts and culture in this country to help to identify ways of funding these kinds of programmes, which preserve, promote and strengthen indigenous knowledge systems. Without investment in our living traditions, we are going to lose them, and this will be a great loss to South Africa’s knowledge economy. In this regard, time is not on our side.’
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