A pilgrimage is a journey embarked on to a hallowed place for self-discovery or to find renewal and spiritual alignment. While many such journeys tend to be of a religious nature, there is an annual pilgrimage of a different kind, leading thousands to a farm in petite eSwatini (Swaziland).

This event, hosted the last weekend of every May, gathers close to 25 000 people from 58 countries at a not-so-small music and arts festival called MTN Bushfire. The festival, conceptualised by Jiggs Thorne 11 years ago, has experienced exponential growth ever since. The festival is not only the pinnacle of the country’s events calendar but contributes significantly to the country’s economy, with an estimated 33 million emalangeni being pumped in by the immense number of tourists that spend the weekend indulging their hedonistic side, hugging strangers and trees, church-stomping to an eclectic selection of bass lines and the colourful outfits that only make sense within the confines of this set-up.

At the heart of the festival is the noble goal of supporting Young Heroes and Gone Rural boMake. Young Heroes is an NGO that focuses on providing a monthly stipend to orphan families. These orphan families exist mostly due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has left many families without mothers and fathers, positioning the oldest child or children as the caregivers. All the profits generated by the festival are donated to Young Heroes – since its inception the festival has donated more than 1,4 million emalangeni to the charity. In addition, the profits generated by the sale of official merchandise supports another NGO, Gone Rural boMake. BoMake is a community and women-empowerment NGO whose core focus is on improving the conditions of the communities from which their artisan women originate. BoMake means ‘mothers’ in Siswati.

South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith/ BushFire 2018

Over the years MTN Bushfire has also situated itself as a champion of the arts by being in the frontline of arts development in Swaziland. It engages with government and relevant stakeholders to provide different platforms for arts education and improvement in the arts sector of the country. With the MTN Bushfire Schools Festival, where close to 700 high-school learners attend art, music and dance workshops to expose them to an expression of the arts, and even as a potential career. The festival also hosts an arts roundtable for Swazi artists, by assembling various panels of industry experts from across the world to share their experiences and expertise with Swazi artists. It is essentially a skills share session.

Read: Massive Line Up For The Nyege Nyege Festival

The Bushfire bug stung me much later this year and by the time I was swollen with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), I was scrambling to get my hands on a ticket. I had lost all hope, because tickets were genuinely sold out. The texts kept come coming in: “Bushfire?” The question mark fast became an emblazoned sign of pressure. The guilt induced by friends who were driving in from South Africa begun to pull me towards those gates. The spirit of the festival has remained its most endearing quality – the same rebellious counterculture spirit of Woodstock exists here, just with more black people. Velemseni, the Swazi singer/songwriter who performed on the Friday night, explains why the festival continues to draw the colossal crowds it does: “There is a hunger for acceptance, free expression, sunshine, healing and love in the world. Bushfire has grown into this pop-up town within a town where the world can come and join hands with people who radiate peace, love and acceptance,” she says.

Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith/ BushFire 2018

A town within a town. Love in a time of hate. Good in times of bad. Light in the dark. Here lies the magic, creating a simple space where love is the true currency in this economy. I am aware that this sounds a tad dramatic and sentimental but I promise, you see it on every corner of the festival. It is a reunion for many, new friendships are forged and lovers find each other. The overwhelming sense I had this year is of the extent to which the festival is an escape – from cloggy city air, from demanding bosses, unreasonable deadlines. For three days, you can be whatever you want.

An intriguing evolution

Bushfire’s evolution has been intriguing to witness as the festival has extended itself beyond the customary concept of a music and arts festival. It has tapped into the understanding that a festival can be more than its music acts and become a political commentator. This year the festival’s support of the LGBTQI+ community in Swaziland was proof of its willingness to be as inclusive and diverse as possible. When Melusi Simelane and his boyfriend, Jamil Farouk, locked lips on the big screen, the roars of support that exploded from the crowd were a sign of the times: the world is changing and love, in whatever form, wins (most of the time).

Read: Pictures: Matobo Heritage Festival

Speaking to Jamil afterwards, about the kiss and his thoughts on the moment, he explains, “If anything, I hope it sent a message. We do not yet live in a world where two men (in this case), in a loving relationship, can kiss, or even hold hands, in public without running the risk of being harmed. Doing what we did and having it broadcast to an international audience hosted in an African country known for homophobia, says something about what is possible when we ‘Turn Fear into Love’, to quote the theme of the first LGBTQI+ Pride celebration happening in Swaziland this year. I hope it says that another way is possible; love is possible.”

Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith/ BushFire 2018

Farouk further attests to the bravery of the festival for its support of the local LGBTQI+ community. “In a cruel world that erases the wrong kind of difference, festivals that go out on a limb are welcomed. In a country like Swaziland, where sexual and gender diversity remains a neglected and often foreign concept, entities and people in positions of power have a responsibility to put their brands on the right side of history,” he said. The acts may change and new sections added to the festival grounds, but one thing remains unchanged for this Swazi festival: to be a vehicle of positive social change – as its ‘Bring Your Fire’ campaign states.

When the sun sets on the final day of the festival and festival goers make the trip back to their lives, the now brown lawn can find rest and regain its green glow in time for next year’s edition. You leave feeling more hopeful about the human spirit and its ability to give and receive love. 

Pictures from the festival

Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith/ BushFire 2018
Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith/ BushFire 2018
Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith/ BushFire 2018
Photo: Bram Lammers/ BushFire 2018
Photo: Bram Lammers/ BushFire 2018
Photo: Bram Lammers/ BushFire 2018
Photo: Bram Lammers/ BushFire 2018