The Ukambe – Dance of the Okavango

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By Petronella Sibeene RUNDU Traditional dances in the Okavango region, just like in most African societies, still remain some of the most cherished practices since time immemorial. Wigs made from wool with beads in a riot of colours, their waists in “skirts” fashioned from reeds and their ankles covered in rattles made from wild dry acacia bean seeds – this completes a dancing gear for the young and old dancers of Okavango. Proudly, they clap their hands as they sing the traditional songs. Modern as the world has become, they still sing the songs in the same way as their ancestors who composed them. Like in most African traditions, dancing is mostly emphasised and movement is regarded as an important mode of communication. For this purpose the dance utilises symbolic gestures, mime, props, masks, and other visual devices. Carrying different symbolic items such as traditional baskets, traditional brooms and wooden guns, they shake their waists and shoulders as they sing and position themselves in linear, circular, serpentine, or columns of two or more rows. This is Ukambe, a historical dance performed by housewives as they welcomed their husbands upon return from the hunting grounds. The songs are accompanied by the drums, usually played by boys/men. The drums which are usually made from a hollowed tree trunk and animal skin are used to arouse the attention and reaction of those dancing, as well as the audience. In mutual cooperation the drummer and the drum create patterns of consciousness that give a moment of inspiration to those around. Songs are usually performed in unison and sometimes in call-and-response form. The basic movement may be simple, emphasising the upper body, torso or feet; or it may be complex involving coordination of different parts of the body and intricate actions such as fast rotation, ripples of the body and contraction and release of stomach muscles. The dance may be open to all, or it may be an activity in which one, two, three or four individuals regardless of sex take turns in the dancing ring. “During the olden days, men would go hunting and when they would come back, wives would dance and sing to welcome those who went to look for food. The man with the meat would ride on a horse and actually the waist dance is an imitation of how the horse moves,” says Magadalena Pessa-Kasere, a dance teacher for Grade 1-4 learners at Sauyemwa Junior Primary School in Rundu. With urbanisation and the impact of western culture, traditional music and dance although still practiced, have faded in most parts of Africa and Namibia is no exception. Pessa-Kasere reveals that the impact of modernisation has not spared the Okavango region. The dance has equally changed to suit today’s world. While the dress code remains the same, she further stated that in the past, the dance or waist movements were performed in a little slow motion unlike today where it is faster. The songs suited the events of that time but today new themes have been added to similarly cater for the needs of the modern world. However, the musical expressions have not changed at all. Indeed, song is used as an avenue of communication. “Culture is not static, songs in the past were about what used to happen then but today we sing about what is happening. We include themes such as the importance of using condoms, women knitting to generate their own income and other issues,” she added. As dance teacher she said: “I train Tuesdays to Thursdays. It is not easy as diffe- rent children might struggle to grasp how they should shake their waists and shoulders. On the other hand it makes me feel proud when we are invited at events to perform and I see them doing just what I taught them.” While beads still form part of the dancing gear, the challenge currently faced involves the accessibility of different coloured beads that are today becoming scarce in the area given its remoteness. Sourcing Springbok skin, important in making drums, is another hiccup traditional groups in the region are facing. Pessa-Kasere encourages schools to introduce traditional dance classes in order to keep the “old dances” alive for future generations. “We are hopeful that culture in the Okavango will continue flourishing. Last year my school took the first place at the national festival held in Khorixas. We want to defend our title in November,” she said.